Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping emerged from their first meeting in a year betting that a handful of small victories will arrest a surge in U.S.-China tensions that has unnerved neighboring nations and threatened global economic growth.
Expectations were low owing to deep-seated differences over trade, Taiwan and human rights, and even the summit’s modest accomplishments were hard-won. Those included deals to try to address the fentanyl crisis and to restore military communications severed after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year.
“We’re in a competitive relationship, China and the United States,” Biden told reporters after more than four hours of talks with Xi. “But my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable so it doesn’t result in conflict. That’s what I’m all about.”
For his part, Xi sought to ease concerns that the U.S. and China were on a path toward a military clash, saying China “will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone.”
“China never bets against the United States and never interferes in its internal affairs,” Xi said in remarks later that evening during a dinner with CEOs including Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and BlackRock Inc.’s Larry Fink. “China has no intention to challenge the United States or to unseat it.”
In a sign of how much remains to be done, there was no evidence of progress on bigger issues like U.S. curbs on microchip exports, tariffs or tensions in the South China Sea, where Chinese and U.S. ships and planes have had a series of provocative encounters. Xi didn’t get what he needs most – deals to help boost the Chinese economy, which is still struggling to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Is this meeting going to improve the relationship? The answer is no, but that’s not the objective – the objective is to frame and contain the risks of it worsening,” said Kurt Tong, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Asia who’s now a managing partner at the Asia Group. He characterized the results as “relatively small” deliverables.
The meeting outside San Francisco was the culmination of intense diplomacy to salvage a relationship that had almost completely broken down over trade disputes, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the alleged Chinese spy balloon that drifted over U.S. territory in January.
But it was also marred by what has now become an almost routine event for Biden at gatherings like this. After offering carefully scripted remarks to reporters, Biden couldn’t resist answering a reporter who asked if he still thought Xi was a dictator.
“Well look, he is,” Biden said as he was leaving the stage. “I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that is based on a form of government totally different than ours.”
That remark signaled how domestic pressure in the U.S. continues to weigh on the relationship. Looming for the U.S. president is the 2024 election and criticism from Republicans who accuse him of being too weak on China and allowing Xi to take advantage of him.
Republicans have assailed the Biden administration for getting nothing substantial out of the ongoing diplomacy, with polls showing a record number of Americans seeing China’s development as a “critical threat” to vital U.S. interests.
Former President Donald Trump, who is emerging as the presumptive Republican 2024 nominee, has needled Biden by drawing contrasts with Xi, portraying Biden as too old and being outwitted by the Chinese leader.
“He’s like a piece of steel, strong, smart,” Trump said of Xi during a speech at Mar a Lago on Tuesday. “There’s nobody in Hollywood who could play the role.”
The persistent U.S.-China tension only served to highlight the fundamental divisions between the two sides, even as they try to inject stability into their rivalry. It also underscored how China failed to achieve one of its goals from the meeting: drag U.S.-China relations away from the competitive framing Biden keeps using.
Chinese leaders hoped to use the meeting “as a way to try and reframe the relationship,” said Martin Chorzempa, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “And it sounds like the U.S. is emphasizing that it’s not going to budge on this point.”
‘Are we adversaries or partners?’
Xi echoed that idea in his dinner speech.
“The number one question for us is, are we adversaries or partners?” Xi said. “If one sees the other side as a primary competitor, the most consequential geopolitical challenge and the pacing threat, it will only lead to misinformed policy making, misguided actions and unwanted results.”
On fentanyl, China has already begun taking action against some Chinese companies that shipped precursor chemicals to third countries where they are used to create the deadly drug that is then shipped into the U.S., one administration official told reporters after the Biden-Xi meeting concluded.
On military communications, China agreed to policy-level discussions between U.S. and Chinese defense chiefs, as well as engagements at senior levels and between lower-level armed forces personnel, the official said.
The administration maintains that engaging with China is key to minimizing the chance that some inadvertent clash veers into an outright conflict.
Many analysts view high-level engagement as particularly necessary given the increasingly centralized power around Xi, who sidelined rivals and captured a third term as Communist Party chief last year.
“These areas of cooperation are unlikely to significantly change the direction of the relationship between the U.S. and China,” said Meia Nouwens, a senior fellow for Chinese security and defense policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Ultimately, the U.S. sees China as a systemic rival and Beijing is convinced the U.S. is trying to contain China.”